Why the Caribbean’s Olympic coverage differed between Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020

The following article was penned for the TTOC Tokyo 2020 Olympic Magazine, prior to the ongoing competition: 

With no spectators likely to be in the stands, for the athletes the Tokyo 2020 experience promises to be unique. For regional televiewers, says LASANA LIBURD, it will be, if not unique, certainly different.

“That delivery leapt,” said iconic Barbadian cricket commentator and journalist Tony Cozier, “like a trained Dobermann at Dean Jones’ throat.”

Photo: West Indies fast bowler Curtly Ambrose (top) on the charge during his prime.

Cozier’s memorable description of West Indies fast bowler Curtly Ambrose’s fierce response to perceived provocation from the now deceased Australia batsman is one example of a regional athlete at the centre of the tale—not as mere supporting cast.

Cozier, eloquent, measured and witty, was the voice of West Indies cricket for decades. But, as Trinidad and Tobago heads into another Olympic Games, does the two-island republic and, indeed, the region deserve to have the campaign of its own athletes vocalised?

“It’s always a huge positive and benefit to have a Caribbean focus,” said Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) president Brian Lewis, in relation to the coverage of the Olympics. “It raises the profile of the athletes in the Caribbean. The Caribbean people get to see their athletes perform and hear the stories behind them, just like NBC will build their coverage on Team USA.

“This gives us a dedicated focus on our own athletes across sports. It helps in engagement and as a motivation and inspiration for the youth, who can see their stars perform and hear their stories through the mouths of Caribbean broadcasters.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s Richard Thompson (right) tries unsuccessfully to hold off Jamaica legend Usain Bolt in the first round of the 100 metre event at the Rio Olympics on 13 August 2016.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

At the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, CANOC (the Caribbean Association of National Olympic Committees) took matters into their hands through the CBI (CANOC Broadcasting Incorporated). As part of an ambitious plan, the regional body secured television rights for all 26 nations within its territory 

In collaboration with Cable and Wireless and ESPN, CBI then produced a scope of coverage for Caribbean athletes that was unprecedented.

“There were about 300 athletes at the last Olympics from the Caribbean and we had a dossier on every single one of them,” said former CBI CEO Larry Romany. “That was sent to ESPN three to four months before the Games, except for track and field whose qualifiers are right before the Games but who are more well-known anyway. So we were learning the back stories.” 

“Then there were interviews of every single athlete,” he went on. “Every single one got an interview before the Games and at least one interview during the Games—so parents, family members, friends, everyone could see their athlete competing and speaking. That had never happened before.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s Khalifa St Fort (right) grabs the baton from teammate Kelly Ann Baptiste in the Women’s 4x100m Relay heats at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on 18 August.
(Copyright Jewel Samad/AFP 2016)

The range might have been different but SportsMax chief operating officer Newton Robertson was quick to point out that his organisation’s Games coverage predated the CBI.

SportsMax covered the London 2012 Olympics and will do so again in Tokyo this July-August. Unlike the CBI, Robertson said his station intends to hone in on the Olympic events that most interest regional viewers; that means track and field with a dash of swimming.

Lance Whittaker will also be a reassuring face on SportsMax’s team.

“This is Lance’s seventh Olympics and he has a special way of doing it that highlights the Caribbean flavour which we seek to bring to the Olympics,” said Robertson. “This is not like the NBC coverage that focuses on the American who is coming fourth behind the Caribbean athletes… 

“For the most part, [our coverage] will focus on track and field, as that is what our people are interested in primarily. So that is where we make the investment.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s Semoy Hackett competes in the Women’s 4x100m relay final during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on 19 August 2016.
(Copyright AFP 2017/Johannes Eisele)

Two very different coverage models, but both with the interest of Caribbean viewers in mind.

For CBI, the idea was to create ‘maximised viewership’ with each country getting as many feeds as possible.

There are 16 channels available simultaneously from the Olympic Games via the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), which is the host broadcaster for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). At Rio, OBS produced 350,000 hours of coverage from the 17-day event.

CBI, Romany explained, sought to make as much airtime as possible available to regional enthusiasts by giving a free feed to multiple media houses, each company able to choose freely from any of the 16 channels at any point in time.

The catch was the stream came with not only Caribbean sport coverage but also a specific number of ads by CBI, which offset their rights acquisition and production costs.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago cyclists Njisane Phillip (left) and Nicholas Paul celebrate after helping Team TTO cop gold in the Men’s Team Sprint final at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru on 1 August 2019.
(Copyright AP Photo/Fernando Llano/Wired868)

“If there were 15 or 16 channels showing the Games, we wanted all to be accessible to viewers instead of just the one that a solitary television rights holder would want to show,” said Romany. “So we signed with Flow which would then stream eight channels, plus TV6, CNC3 and TTT. At any point in time, you could see cycling, swimming, equestrian—all at the same time. You only had to flip the channel.

“[…] Olympic broadcast is so diverse and, if you have enough platforms, you could watch everything. Every time a Caribbean person competed, you could see it.”

SportsMax, which outbid the CBI for the Tokyo Games, offers a more traditional model. Having acquired the Olympic rights for the region, the company sold it to a solitary rights holder in each country that was able to bid.

In Trinidad and Tobago, CNC3 acquired the rights while TVJ own it in Jamaica. Both stations are guaranteed exclusivity, which means even SportsMax’s coverage should be unavailable on those islands.

Photo: Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson (second from right) crosses the finish line in the 200 metre final ahead of bronze medalist Tori Bowie (right) and Trinidad and Tobago’s Michelle-Lee Ahye (second from left) in the Rio Olympic Games on 17 August 2016.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

For the countries unable to purchase the rights, SportsMax delivers its own feed that mixes the generic OBS stream with its own spicy coverage of specific events.

Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, SportsMax has set up headquarters in Jamaica rather than Tokyo. However, Robertson said his team is anxious to explode out of the blocks.

“We are putting together a production team utilising about 100 interns along with guest analysts like Obadele Thompson, Pauline Davis-Thompson and Aleen Bailey, who are past Olympians themselves and will help us to provide analysis of the event,” he said. “We want to bring the highest quality coverage and a key component will be ensuring that Caribbean athletes are featured in our presentation.”

SportsMax hope to have former Olympic swim coach Anil Roberts in their team but are unlikely to do so, owing to the minimum 14-day quarantine in Jamaica for any visitors from Trinidad and Tobago.

Photo: UNC Senator and former Olympic swim coach Anil Roberts (left) with late ex-TTFA president Raymond Tim Kee.
Roberts was headhunted to join the SportsMax team for the Tokyo Olympics.

Regular presenter Alex Jordan will lead a SportsMax delegation in Tokyo that will work in the mixed zones and look out for features and ‘beauty shots.’

“Jordan will head the team that will try and give us a feel of what is going on in Tokyo,” said Robertson. “People want to hear the behind-the-scenes stuff, which is also hugely interesting—like even the protests and so on—and they will be there to capture those stories around the Olympics.”

The Games are in different hands but, according to Robertson, SportsMax plans to deliver an enthralling show with the proverbial baton.

“We have a simulation exercise planned for later this month (June) because, as you know, the devil is in the details,” he said. “[…] We are pretty excited because we are coming out of a period when we were not doing a lot of production [because of the pandemic]. 

Photo: Rower Felice Chow at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
(Copyright Sean Morrison/Wired868)

“So now that things have opened up a little, the staff is very excited for the opportunity to be covering an event [of this magnitude].”

Let the games begin, then.

Editor’s Note: With the kind permission of the publisher, this story has been reprinted from the official TTOC Tokyo 2020 Olympic Magazine. Copies of the magazine are available for perusal at NALIS and in selected secondary schools.

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